Eloquence and Ambiguity in the Age of Conviction and Action: President Obama’s Speech on Immigration Reform

With his usual eloquence, President Obama spoke yesterday on why comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) is necessary and what it means for the country. But he didn’t say how or when it should be achieved.  His discourse was not new, for it has been a recurrent theme of politicians on both sides of the aisle for a long decade. In 2007, his predecessor George W. Bush enlisted the help of Senators Kennedy and McCain to advance a bipartisan CIR bill but failed. Let’s remember that the U.S. economy was at its peak then.

Today, our economy is shaky at best and not yet gaining much traction to pull itself out of the 2008 deep hole.  Major states like California, Florida, Illinois, and others that are home to large numbers of undocumented immigrants are among the most economically challenged in the nation, some with long-term structural deficits and constitutional budget-balancing mandates. With the burden of incumbency and control of all houses, many a Democrat is running for cover from CIR. This might explain why the President was careful not to suggest how or when CIR should be passed.

Despite the uplifting and compelling tenor of his speech, President Obama’s latest address to the nation on CIR left the impression that he really doesn’t have a game plan yet. So, why do it? Why try to raise hopes if the vision and conviction are not clearly set? Because Democrats are fearful that a disenchanted Hispanic electorate may not show up in November and further deepen their anticipated losses in Congress. And of course 2012 is just around the corner.

There were glimmers of conviction in his speech, however, about the feasibility of passing at least a couple of parts of the CIR package: the DREAM Act and Ag Jobs. The president highlighted his support of the former when he was a Senator and his continuing hope for its expeditious passage if other aspects of CIR are not done. He made a similar pitch for Ag Jobs. He did this while emphasizing the strengthening of border security already achieved and the stringent requirements to be imposed on the 11 million undocumented immigrants that stand to be processed under CIR. The net impression left by his remarks was that the DREAM Act and Ag Jobs are doable now, but not CIR.

After all, barely two months ago (April 28) the President declared that there may “not be an appetite” in Congress to deal with CIR. In that sense, his latest speech is consistent with his stated beliefs, but he had to deliver a more ambiguous message to ease Democrats in heavily Hispanic states and congressional districts.

Eloquence without proactive action is of no consequence. Lacking a blueprint for CIR action, the President’s address at least hinted at his confidence in the feasibility of the DREAM Act and Ag Jobs but offered no time line for either.   At the very least, the President should push for enactment of these two pieces of legislation (NOW!) as a down payment on CIR. The momentum generated by these victories could create the conditions in Congress for the rest of CIR to have a chance in the 112th Congress, even as the next Presidential election looms over the nation.  Or some might say, because of it, as the Census count and its impending redistricting are likely to boost Hispanic political clout over the national landscape.

Who said that eloquence and ambiguity cannot coexist with conviction and action, at least for what is doable?

Antonio Flores
President & CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities
San Antonio, Texas
July 2, 2010

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